After much-publicized stops in Australia, Qatar and Oman – the UCI brings high-profile stage racing back to its traditional European heartland this weekend with the 70th staging of Paris-Nice.
Paris-Nice is the first of the European-based World Tour races and the second of 2012 following January’s Tour Down Under. As usual a world class field will gather at the start line and confirmation is through that the three men who made up the podium last year will all be present to do battle again: Tony Martin, who finished first, will line up for his new team Omega Pharma Quick-Step; Andreas Kloden (RadioShack-Nissan), who was the runner-up in 2011; and Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, who finished in third place.
All three are well fancied to challenge for victory and with Paris-Nice throwing up 11 multiple winners in the course of its fabled history, Martin will be hopeful of delivering the win once again. The world time trial champion has had a solid start to 2012 as he settles into his new team but will be looking to crank things up a notch in the early season French highlight.
Wiggins was beaten to time trial gold at the Worlds by Martin last September and will be looking to take his revenge in a race that plays to his strengths. He will be buoyed by Team Sky’s early season form, which has seen them win races all over the world, and by his own good showing at the Tour of Algarve in mid February, where he beat Martin in the final day time trial and finished a place behind him (in third) in the overall GC.
Kloden won Paris-Nice as a young rider way back in 2000 and along with the likes of Thor Hushovd (BMC), Chris Froome (Team Sky), Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Frank and Andy Schelck (RadioShack-Nissan) he is bound to ensure that the rider that comes out on top at the end of the eight stage race will have had to fight every step of the way.
Those eight stages feature time trials at the start and at the end, with stage eight’s 9.6km time trial up the Col d’Eze returning to the route after a gap of more than a decade. While the two time trials will suit the likes of Wiggins and Martin, their relatively short cumulative distance will not inconvenience the Schleck brothers as much as other races. And sprinters also flourish on certain stages here, as victories by Matthew Goss and Greg Henderson proved last year.
The 2012 Paris-Nice course, which starts in the village of Dampierre-en-Yvelines just outside Paris on Sunday 4 March and finishes just outside Nice a week later, takes in 1153 kilometres in total and features climbs in each stage. So whose turn will it be to join the likes of seven-time winner Sean Kelly, Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain and Eddy Merckx on the glittering roll of honour? There isn’t long to wait to find out.